In its broadest sense, this research investigates how one should design the physical environment for the contemporary subject of the Digital Era. The ease and immediacy with which one can access the preponderance of information available through digital media has complicated the development and understanding of self-identity in popular culture, and by correlation how one engages with society (1).
The internet is a limitless reservoir of information which also provides a platform for users to publicly and privately communicate. It is both a resource for news and research and also as a ‘space’ for social networking and interaction. However, the abundance of information and the ability of anyone to contribute this information makes different scenarios of ‘truth’ plausible; “details can be reconfigured, reinstalled in settings to produce any number of virtual realities. Statistics can be offered to support most anything we like” (2).
While digital technology decentralizes power and increases the fluidity and reach for information exchange, it also increases the capacity for enhanced control of its environments. Applications are increasingly deployed to leverage user profiles and usage patterns in order to help individuals ‘navigate’ towards similar types of information amongst the abundance of information at their disposal, consequently helping to reinforce existing ideologies and interests. While this creates an ease and immediacy to acquiring information that most users enjoy, it perpetuates a reflexive process of information gathering which effectively narrows the construction of individual and collective identity. Therefore, while digital technologies might promise the democratization of information exchange, the manner in which the uncritical user accesses that information might be leading him down a more specific, homogenous road.
Digital technology has also blurred the boundaries between public and private – individuals can engage in public activity anywhere with handheld digital devices. Families watch worldwide events from their living room. We can engage anything from a distance, but this comes at a cost to public space and formulations of the public sphere “as the immediacy of various forms of action-at-a-distance dislodge the social primacy of embodied presence” (3). The mass audience carries little to no physical, emotional, or intellectual connection to the events and information continuously broadcast on television and online media. Our nation may be at war, but we do not necessarily feel it. Instead, we watch it unfold as we would a movie and often fail to fully understand its consequences.
The visual culture which currently dominates the digital era threatens to undermine serious engagement with society. The public becomes somewhat numb to the social and political environment because it doesn’t fully engage these environments. While the potential of digital media to proliferate information, construct knowledge, and connect diverse publics is tremendous, we must still critically consider its technologies. “The challenge to the creative use of media technologies is fostering the diversity of public actors and terrains and to develop strategies of articulating the new public domains that connect physical urban spaces and the potential public sphere of the electronic networks. This public sphere will only come into being if there are complex forms of interaction, of participation and learning, that use the technical possibilities of the new networks and that allow for new and creative forms of becoming visible, becoming active, in short, of becoming public” (4).
This thesis aims to critique contemporary formulations of identity and societal engagement in an age increasingly dominated by the proliferation of electronic information and interaction through the proposition of an architecture which fosters critical awareness of the (re)presentations of actuality in digital media and directs critical engagement between the new subject of the digital era and the public sphere.
Most of the architecture of the last two decades has focused on new formal expression the tools of digital technology make possible and on the affects of digital media on physical objects that traditionally have been the bearers of information. While Archigram considered how digital technology could create a more fluid, user oriented environment in the 1960’s and 70’s, architects at the turn of the 21st century such as Frank Gehry have emphasized the use of digital technology to create more fluid forms for inert objects (5). Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito and many others have proposed new designs for the contemporary library in an attempt to account for digital media as well as the traditional book, but very few architectural proposals have emerged regarding how the proliferation of digital technology directly affects the subject in society; this type of investigation has largely been left to public artists.
These considerations are relevant because digital media is increasingly shaping our identity and how we engage with society at large. Architects must examine the affects the digital world has on how we negotiate physical space. If the digital world is characterized by the ease and immediacy of information exchange, which can be self-reinforcing, how can design of the physical environment facilitate new, unexpected interactions that slow down our movement and encourage travel down more diverse network paths? How can the built environment challenge us to critically examine the mediated world from which we gather information? How can architects design the physical world to facilitate in-depth interaction in society at large? How can architectural design leverage digital technologies to inform, educate and encourage citizens to actively participate in political, cultural, and economic events in a way that creates new possibilities rather than reinforcing old ideologies?
The design proposal will focus on designing a new, contemporary urban upper school. I find the school appropriate because:
1. All people are required to attend school to learn, to process information and acquire knowledge, a process that has dramatically changed in the digital era. The school is a place made to house and teach the subject, to challenge him to actively engage in society.
2. This is a crucial place in the development and maturation of a personal and collective identity.
3. It is a public building that is treated as increasingly private due to fear and security issues.
4. It can have a very public, empowering voice.
Historically, the school has focused around the classroom, a place for focus and learning. In many ways the fundamental teaching system is still based on societal values that are centuries old. It has increasingly turned its focus inward, protecting itself against the exterior world in contemporary times even though the learning process has becomes a continuous cycle because of the abundance of information available for consumption.
I suggest that the school should become more transparent and engaged with society, instead of turning away from it, especially in light of the fact that information is everywhere and can be accessed from anywhere. The digital world suggests that the learning process is constant, and the school must take on a much greater role in teaching its students to be critical of information and their environment. The school must embrace digital technologies but teach students to critically engage them, utilizing these technologies to foster a greater understanding that all citizens can have a powerful voice in society. It must challenge students to move away from homogenous views by immersing students in the diverse world.
The school should reinvigorate its role in society as a powerful public institution and integral player in shaping urban environments and community life.
Potential avenues for design:
Speculation 1. The school should not be an object in the urban environment, it should trend towards becoming seamless with the urban environment. In order to effectively teach students today, they must learn to critically analyze the mediated environment, which is everywhere. Physical interaction in diverse environments can emphasize the importance of tactile interaction, and help create greater awareness and understanding of notions of public.
i) This might suggest the school be decentralized in the urban environment and the students must actively participate in its terrain.
ii) Alternatively, it might suggest that the school building envelop other public institutions in order to interact with the public at large. School facilities such as libraries, auditoriums, gymnasiums, and theaters could be opened up for public use. Public financing could be leveraged in this way to produce better programs and facilities while creating diverse interactions.
Speculation 2. The school must embrace digital technologies and give students a forum to utilize these technologies in public and private, challenging them to see the advantages and disadvantages of such technologies so they can be critical of them. Projecting digital technologies into the urban community can empower students and teach them to understand the value of an active public voice. This is an opportunity to engage the public sphere.
Speculation 3. Students could operate on two levels within the school with a physical and digital presence, therefore learning the values and discrepancy between the two, and forcing them to critically engage both in a manner that becomes productive in leveraging one to push the other.
Speculation 4. Schools should investigate the possibility of public/private partnerships, which seem inevitable in today’s society. If properly conceived, private business can be an outlet to enhance school programs but also provide alternative after school activities and professional development.
Architecture can no longer be considered an autonomous endeavor, it must embrace and investigate the political, cultural, and economic agencies which control its proliferation in order to effectively respond to the needs of society today.
1.Georg Simmel describes the concept of self as something unique and independent, but based on the desire for inclusion in society in “How is Society Possible.” American Journal of Sociology 16 (1910-1911).
2.Jodi Dean, “Uncertainty, Conspiracy, Abduction” in Reality Squared: Televisual Discourses on the Real, ed. James 3.Friedman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (2002), 304.
3.Scott McQuire. The Media City: Media, Architecture, and Urban Space. London: Sage Publications (2008), 10.
4.Qtd in McQuire, 150.
In its broadest sense, this research investigates how one should design the physical environment for the contemporary subject of the Digital Era. The ease and immediacy with which one can access the preponderance of information available through digital and electronic media has complicated the development and understanding of self-identity in popular culture, and by correlation how one engages with society. The significance of the public institution as a center for information exchange and civic engagement has diminished in favor of new media , which has become a staple at home and is trending increasingly mobile.
While architectural investigations of the past two decades contemplate the formal possibilities of digital technology and the affects of new media on physical objects, few architectural proposals consider how the proliferation of these media and technologies directly affect the subject in society. This project rethinks the design of the contemporary upper school as a model for considering the affects of new media on individual and community interaction, the dissemination of information and the evolution (dissolution?) of public institutions.
This thesis challenges contemporary formulations of identity and societal engagement in an age increasingly dominated by the proliferation of digital and electronic information and interaction through the proposition of an architecture which fosters critical awareness of the (re)presentations of actuality in new media and directs critical engagement between the new subject of the digital era and the public sphere.
My complete thesis preparation document can be viewed here: Rethinking the Contemporary School